Finding the Right Appeal Frequency

Posted on 11/25/2018

One of Aesop’s great fables is about a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. Time and time again the villagers come to his aid only to discover that he doesn’t really need their aid. In the story’s tragic ending, a real wolf finally does appear. When the boy again cries out for help, the villagers ignore him and the sheep are eaten by the wolf.

Besides offering the important lesson to always tell the truth, this story also has an application for annual giving professionals: be wary of asking too often. But understanding that donors usually don’t give unless they’re asked, many annual giving programs struggle to determine the right frequencies for solicitations.

There’s a lot of noise and competition out there for limited philanthropic dollars. An aggressive strategy can keep your institution (and its need for support) top of mind for your constituents. The more often you ask, the more likely it is that your appeal will be heard. Being assertive can also produce better results. There is, in fact, a correlation between higher appeal frequency and higher participation rates.

While frequent appeals draw more attention to your institution, they can also create donor fatigue. The more you ask, the more you risk alienating your prospects over time. It doesn’t take much for someone to click the unsubscribe link in your email or request to be taken off your call list. Asking too often also risks causing your constituents to lose interest in all of your communications—appeals and otherwise.

The optimal frequency depends on a number of factors including your budget, school culture, and goals. Ultimately, good solicitation and segmentation strategies consider more than just appeal frequency; they also balance method, message, and timing. What, how, and when you ask are just as—if not more—important as how often you ask. You’ll know when you’ve found the right balance for your audience when you start noticing a trend toward positive results.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Segmenting Direct Mail Appeals.

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Crafting a Recipe for Donor Retention

Posted on 11/18/2018

What is the secret ingredient for retaining donors from one year to the next?

Does it lie in the timing of your appeals: when you solicit them again after their previous gift? Could it depend on the messages you convey: how well you describe the impact of their support or how clever your solicitations appear? Or maybe it hangs on the experiences your donors have following their donation: did they received a proper gift acknowledgment or were they offered opportunities to engage through events or volunteering?

The reality is that there’s more than one ingredient in a good retention strategy. It’s a combination—and a balance—of all of these things that ultimately leaves a good taste in your donors’ mouths and makes them hungry to give more.

Understanding how good stewardship can have a positive impact on donor retention, Boston College shared a little something extra with their donors just before Thanksgiving: the university’s holiday cookbook. This special online publication contains recipes (all named after iconic features of the university and its campus) for such seasonable dishes as Eagle Pride Pork Loin, Burns Bread Pudding, and Chestnut Hill Cranberry Kumquat Relish.

According to Amy Ferguson, Boston College’s Director of Leadership Donor Engagement, the team uses a variety of creative events and communications throughout the year to show donors how they are a critical part of the school community. Ongoing stewardship touches, like the holiday cookbook, help cultivate donors who feel connected on a personal level—and are more likely to renew their annual support as a result.

It’s important to remind donors that they’re special outside of the times when they’re being solicited. Let them know that they’re appreciated, especially during the holiday season. And don’t be afraid to give a little something back. When the time comes for them to decide whether or not to renew their support, your extra little gestures might just be the icing on the cake.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Donor Retention in the Modern Age.

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Setting Expectations for Young Alumni Volunteers

Posted on 11/11/2018

Good volunteers make a big difference in the success of your annual giving efforts. It’s their love for the institution, their personal connections, and their shared experiences that make them effective fundraisers. But recruiting the right people to serve as volunteers requires a lot of time and effort. When you finally have them on board, it’s crucial to keep them engaged and happy. Successful engagement includes setting clear expectations and letting them know exactly what it is that you want them to do. This is particularly important in the case of younger volunteers who may have less experience in leadership roles.

The annual giving team at James Madison University (JMU) recognizes that communicating expectations can have an impact on the success of a volunteer program. Having recently launched a new group of young alumni leaders known as the GOLD Network Board, the team wanted to ensure that each volunteer understood what they’d signed up to do. With this in mind, they created a charge (essentially a job description) that laid out the following GOLD Network volunteer expectations:

  • Making a gift annually at a leadership level
  • Attending alumni events in their area
  • Spreading the word on social media about the university and the impact of philanthropy
  • Participating in retreats on campus and by phone
  • Engaging and soliciting a group of 10-15 fellow alumni each year

In addition, members are asked to serve on one of five specialized committees to spearhead focused activities. These groups include:

  • Relations: Interfacing with alumni chapters and other boards
  • Marketing: Assisting with messaging and social media strategy
  • Stewardship: Advising on donor benefits and helping with donor follow-up once gifts are received
  • Development: Helping to educate young alumni on the importance of giving and to train volunteers
  • Network: Serving as career and networking advisors for young alumni

Gretchen Armentrout, JMU’s director of annual giving, has been impressed by the GOLD Network’s level of engagement and interest in fundraising. By setting clear expectations for the group, they’ve been able to recruit active volunteers who are excited and motivated by their charge. She reports that GOLD Network volunteers even took their advocacy role a step further during the school’s recent giving day, when marketing committee members extended their reach by working with JMU alumni chapter leadership to design messaging and create social media content.

When you clearly communicate expectations for your volunteers, you help ensure that the group is ready and excited for the commitment. And there’s no doubt that motivated and engaged volunteers have a positive effect on annual giving efforts. By starting this with your young alumni, you will see success not only in the volunteer program in the near-term, you’ll also likely set the stage for continued involvement and leadership as your volunteers mature.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Productive Annual Fund Volunteers.

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Going Social to Determine Donor Interests

Posted on 11/04/2018

Nothing makes a fundraising appeal more effective than when it speaks to a prospective donor personally. There are numerous techniques for achieving this, from addressing the prospect by name, to acknowledging an action they’ve taken in the past (such as making a gift or attending an event), or simply adding a handwritten note at the bottom of a letter. One of the best ways to make an appeal feel personal is to make sure the content aligns with the recipient’s individual interests. Instead of sending all of your prospects a generic “one size fits all” appeal, try one that shares information on—and asks them to support—something that they really care about.

But, how? Fundraisers are not mind-readers, and while alumni and donor databases can include information on prospects’ interests and preferences, that data is often limited and outdated. Fortunately, the proliferation of social media now offers a way to access and use information on prospects that tends to be more accurate than what’s sitting in the institution’s own files. And as college and university advancement programs are increasing the amount of content that they’re posting to social media channels, there is a growing opportunity to watch how alumni respond and learn more about them.

The annual giving team at Bentley University has recognized the value of utilizing social media as a donor research tool, leading them to invest more time and resources into mining it. By monitoring who “likes” and comments on particular content on Facebook and other channels, they gain valuable data points and then use that information to better inform their solicitation strategies. For example, if the university posts on their Facebook page that the basketball team has won a game and 25 alumni engage with that post, the annual giving team knows that those 25 alumni are possible prospects for future solicitations to support the basketball team.

As populations of special interest are identified, potential donors and segments are flagged in the prospect database. While there is a growing number of software tools out there to assist with this process, it’s also possible to do this manually. Then, as the team develops its solicitation strategies throughout the year, they have access to this information to help make decisions about who, how, and when to target.

According to Sue Beebee Gagné, Bentley’s Director of Annual Giving, taking advantage of social media is part of an evolution in annual giving. Younger donors are more interested in directing their philanthropy to areas that are meaningful to them, and using social media helps build a better connection with those donors and drives future investment. The team is so optimistic about this approach to donor research and marketing that they’ve created a new position on their annual giving team exclusively dedicated to engaging with alumni via social media channels. In fact, the first person they hired for the role is a recent graduate who not only has a good grasp of social media but who is also very familiar with the organization and culture of the university. And while the team hasn’t set specific dollar goals for this position yet, they hope and expect that the investment will lead to increased participation over time, particularly among younger alumni.

In this day and age, with people interacting digitally as much as (if not more than!) in person, you’re missing out on some of the best opportunities to not only engage your base but also to learn more about them if you aren’t leveraging social media channels in your work. By employing even basic data mining and analytics, you can gain valuable insight to help guide the personalization of your appeals. So go social—in this situation, no doubt it will be time well spent.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Analyzing Social Media Data to Improve Fundraising.

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The Secret to Retaining Strong Phonathon Callers

Posted on 10/28/2018

Running a student phonathon is hard work. But soliciting donations night after night as a caller can be even tougher, especially for new students who are learning how to be successful on the phone. Many college and university call center managers report that retaining callers is one of their biggest challenges. In fact, it’s not unusual for programs to have more than half of the students quit by the end of each semester. With turnover so expensive, it’s crucial to create a call center environment where students can refine their skills, feel supported, and enjoy going to work. Doing so will not only cut down on staff attrition rates, it will also ensure that your program is productive.

The phonathon program at Wheaton College has found that the key to success lies first and foremost in making callers feel like they belong to a team—before they’re even taught how to use calling software or read from the fundraising script. Their phonathon team model, which has been in place for the past 10 years, continues to result in pledge rates above 55 percent and delivers more first-time donors than any other solicitation channel at the school.

Wheaton’s student callers are assigned to work the same nights for the entire semester so that groups are consistent and can develop strong relationships. More seasoned callers are given the opportunity to apply for the role of team captain; if promoted, they lead a team of 4-6 callers. Team captains work with callers both in small groups and one-on-one to teach them how to improve their calling skills. This coaching is a critical component of Wheaton’s program, helping to distribute the burden of training and management to prevent phonathon manager burnout.

New callers begin by reviewing the employee handbook and caller training manual prior to their first shift. After that, the team format becomes the primary channel for training. During the first night of each semester, the caller groups are asked to come up with a team name and perform a skit based on that name as a way to promote corporate identity. Nightly games and incentives are customized so teams have to work together, and the captains can use these opportunities to focus on developing certain team dynamics. Additional training activities continue to highlight the Phonathon Center’s central themes: unity, growth, fun, and relationships. These values are what prepare callers to have honest and authentic conversations over the phone.

According to Mark James, Wheaton’s phonathon manager, caller training is designed to rely on firmly-established team dynamics in order to teach strong fundraising fundamentals. As part of the pre-calling preparation each night, teams take time to meet together and discuss their calling assignments, as well as review various strategies to help them succeed, such as creatively navigating tone during their conversations instead of simply going through the various options presented in the script. These team discussions build the confidence of the callers so they are comfortable with resolving challenging situations and gaining the trust of their donors.

In addition to strong fundraising results, caller retention is high. Last year, Wheaton saw a 60 percent retention rate of recent hires, and a 9 percent absenteeism rate throughout the semester. On average, only three employees will quit before the semester ends. By developing people, Wheaton is not only creating a stronger call center, but also cultivating its next generation of donors and advocates.

The more confident and comfortable callers feel with each other, the more confidently and comfortably they will be able to communicate their experiences and requests to donors. By investing in caller teams, you can focus on relationship-building tactics that also translate to donor conversations, helping to provide a basis for a lifetime of support—from student callers and alumni alike.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Recruiting & Retaining Quality Callers.

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Offering Donors the Option to Restrict Their Gifts

Posted on 10/21/2018

Making the case for annual fund support used to be pretty straightforward. Potential donors would often be asked to make an “unrestricted” gift to support the institution’s current needs. Those gifts would serve a budget-relieving function and be allocated to operations — meaning that anything and everything could benefit from annual philanthropic support. Donor impact was communicated in very general terms, such as supporting “margins of excellence” or “school priorities,” since annual gifts could potentially be directed to any aspect of the institution.

But due to the growing awareness donors have about the unique programs and opportunities at their alma maters, fully unrestricted giving has become less appealing in recent years. Increasingly, donors want to direct their annual philanthropic dollars to areas that are interesting or meaningful to them. In response to this shift, many annual funds are giving donors the option to be more targeted with their support.

Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland has seen how allowing donors to restrict their annual gift can have a positive impact on participation rates and overall fundraising results. A few years ago, the annual giving team conducted an internal assessment of how they were communicating the case for support in their appeals. What they determined through this process was that much of their past marketing had been focused on soliciting unrestricted gifts, with occasional references to how the annual fund supports tuition assistance and distinct areas of school life. The team realized that their messaging was not only inconsistent, it was also unclear about how donors were making an impact.

As part of a new marketing strategy, Saint Ignatius decided to fully embrace messaging that highlighted where annual donors could direct their support. After engaging in discussions internally about donor priorities, the team proposed creating five specific categories within the annual fund that donors could use to direct their gift: tuition assistance, faculty through academics, the fine arts program, activities associated with the school’s Jesuit mission, and athletics. A “greatest need” option was also maintained for donors who did not want to direct their gift and for any gifts received without a designation. The school’s finance and administrative team was supportive of the new marketing plan, and because all of these designations were existing funding priorities, the annual fund would have the same budget-relieving impact for the organization.

To introduce the community to the new annual fund designations, the team redesigned appeals and marketing strategies. They also created special branding for the athletics designation, naming it after a beloved and longstanding athletic director, Father Sullivan. Advertising for The Father Sullivan Fund now appears in athletic programs and on the scoreboards during sporting events. In addition to the messaging in appeals, donors receive specific stewardship touches throughout the year that align with the direction of their annual gift.

According to Dan Malone, the Director of Annual Fund and Leadership Giving at Saint Ignatius, marketing the restricted giving options has helped increase alumni participation, particularly among younger graduates. Nearly 50 percent of total annual gifts are now designated, with these donors skewing younger than those who keep their gifts unrestricted. Having the option for restricted gifts also allows the annual fund team to solicit sizeable contributions that underwrite large budgetary expenses, such a team trips or Jesuit retreats, in personal solicitations to potential major donors. The gifts are still considered part of the annual fund, but the donors feel more empowered by the choice and generally more connected to their philanthropic support.

Donors today want to know more about how they’ve made a difference, regardless of their gift size. Providing the opportunity to direct an annual fund gift can better connect them with their impact, while presenting you with valuable information on their interests and motivations that can be used to cultivate ongoing support. After all, making a donor feel good about their current gift can lead to many more gifts in the future.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Communicating with Young Alumni About Giving.

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Using Your Phonathon to Secure Gift Officer Visits

Posted on 10/14/2018

Phonathons have long been a cornerstone of annual giving programs — and with good reason. Data consistently shows that telemarketing has a higher conversion rate than direct mail and email appeals and that calling is an effective means for acquiring new donors and upgrading current donors. Quite simply, phonathons are an efficient way to engage a large number of prospects with your institution in a personal way.

Phonathons are also expensive to operate. Recruiting and training student workers, managing the call center, and maintaining the necessary technology all require time and resources. In an era of declining contact rates, this has many institutions evaluating whether their phonathon is worth the investment.

The University of Florida is investing in new ways to get the most out of their student outreach. Over the past three years, the annual fund team has added scheduling visits for UF’s leadership annual giving officers (LAGOs) to their student caller portfolio. To launch the program, the phonathon management team identified their three best callers and provided them with specialized training on how to build relationships with prospects over the phone in order to secure visits for LAGOs. The appointment-setting calls are conducted during the day to avoid interference with the regular solicitation calls, so as not to impact the phonathon’s primary, revenue-generating function.

According to Elizabeth Keppel, UF’s Director of Development for Annual Giving, the visit-scheduling strategy has paid off. With a little over 900 hours allocated to appointment setting in its first year, the phonathon was able to schedule 172 visits and generate 223 potential future visits for the LAGO team. Each of UF’s leadership annual fund officers completes close to 200 visits per year, and phonathon callers are now scheduling roughly half of them. The appointment outreach also serves as a qualifying function for the UF team. Callers generated more than 1,000 declined visits; those alumni were then deferred out of active portfolios for one to two years.

While this assistance has been critical to LAGOs’ ability to meet aggressive targets, they do still have the option to conduct their own appointment setting too. Since leadership annual giving officers are a talent pipeline to major gift officer positions at UF, the institution recognizes the importance of giving team members an opportunity to hone this skill.  

What started out as a strategy to increase the phonathon’s return on investment has now become a critical component of UF’s overall advancement strategy, allowing the annual fund to leverage their resources and make a meaningful impact across the institution. By expanding the scope of your calling program and using it in new and innovative ways, you can ensure that your phonathon remains a productive part of your advancement efforts for many years to come.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Planning for Phonathon Success.

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How to Make Sure Your Appeals Get Noticed

Posted on 10/07/2018

Despite the increased use of digital tactics by fundraising organizations, direct mail is alive and well. In fact, many annual giving programs still generate more than 50 percent of their revenue – and a significant number of their donors – through letters and other printed appeals. Direct mail is a scalable and relatively low-cost method for soliciting large audiences. It can also be an especially effective and efficient way to remind donors when it’s time to renew their gift each year.

Printed appeals do, however, come with their share of challenges. For one thing, it’s not easy to make them stand out from all of the other letters, magazines, and promotional materials that often clutter a donor’s mailbox. While people don’t typically think that nonprofits face competition, the truth is that there are millions of charities out there all vying for prospects’ limited attention and a share of their philanthropic wallet. If your appeals look generic, there’s a much higher likelihood that they’ll go unnoticed and unopened. Boring envelopes often find themselves on the fast track to the recycle bin.

With that in mind, there are tactics one can employ to make an envelope stand out, such as using attractive or unusual colors, testing different fonts, or luring prospects to “look inside” with curious messages and offers of special gifts. And while testing new ideas and mixing up the look and feel of each appeal is certainly important, one of the most effective ways to capture the attention of a prospect – and more importantly, to connect a prospect with your institution and its mission – is simply to highlight those very things that make your organization distinct on the outside of the appeal.

The annual fund team at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) not only recognizes how important the envelope can be to a successful appeal, but also that unique offerings make their institution a special place. As a school that’s focused on training the next generation of artists and designers, CCS wanted to emphasize its mission and inject a little creativity into their direct mail strategy.

The CCS annual fund team designed a direct mail insert that featured art from current students, but instead of using a standard envelope format for the appeal, the student art insert was folded so that a portion of the art was visible through the window of the envelope. With the art peeking through, recipients were enticed to open the appeal and see the full enclosure. The inserts were produced on high-quality paper to fully showcase the art, and the artists have rotated over the years to fully highlight the spectrum of degrees offered at CCS. Since annual fund gifts at CCS primarily support scholarships, students receiving aid were selected for the appeals, and the students’ names, hometowns, and photos were included to accompany their art and further connect donors with gift impact.

According to Anthony Spangler, CCS’s Associate Director for Individual Giving and Alumni Relations, the creative approach has paid off. The team saw a 25 percent increase in donor counts over previous direct mail appeals in the first three mailings that featured the new student art inserts, and all subsequent appeals have had higher response rates than the previous letter-only strategy. While the insert appeals have been more expensive to produce due to paper quality and the hand-matching process that the vendor uses, the team has been pleased with the response to their new approach – so much so, in fact, that all mailed appeals now include a picture of student art, either on the custom insert or on the letter itself.

If you expect to cut through the mailbox static, you’re going to have to get creative, try new approaches, and push the envelope from time to time. And there’s no better way to do this than by highlighting something that makes your institution unique. Not only will you make your appeal stand out, you’ll create an instant connection with donors who find your institution special too.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Rethinking Direct Mail Appeals.

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The “Best in Annual Giving” Challenge

Posted on 10/01/2018

Calling all annual giving professionals to rise to the challenge and share your most successful and innovative annual giving efforts with the AGN community! Submit your direct mail appeals, emails, scripts, stewardship pieces, volunteer materials, webpages, advertisements, giving day, crowdfunding or other special campaigns.

In return, each participating institution will receive access to all of the submitted examples AND receive one of the following gifts:

  • 1 Free webinar
  • 1 Free job posting
  • $100 off a 1-Year AGN Plus Membership (new or renewal)

The best submissions will be selected by a panel of AGN’s expert faculty. Winners will be announced in early 2019 and featured in articles and webinars throughout the year.

Limit 3 entries (and one gift) per institution. Please include at least one image per submission. All entries must be made by October 31, 2018.

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Renewing Donors on their Gift Anniversary

Posted on 09/23/2018

For many couples, anniversaries can be important markers for their relationship. Whether it’s to celebrate a first date, a first kiss, or a wedding, taking time to remember those important moments from the past can rekindle feelings of connection and love, and ultimately help to strengthen the bond between them. Unfortunately, during busy times, it can be easy to let an important anniversary get overlooked or forgotten. When that happens, of course, it doesn’t mean one loves the other any less. More than likely, it just means that someone could use a little nudge to help them remember.

The concept of anniversaries isn’t foreign to fundraising. For reunions, many institutions use the sentiment and goodwill surrounding the celebration of a class’ past graduation to re-engage alumni and encourage their support. Reunion programs have served as a cornerstone of major and special giving programs for decades.

Baruch College took the concept of anniversary celebrations a step further by incorporating them into their stewardship and donor retention strategy. The “Baruchiversary” was developed as a way to celebrate each donor’s prior-year gift and serve as a reminder to them that it’s time to renew their support. The campaign, which consists simply of a postcard and an email, highlights the importance of their annual giving with a personal touch.

Donors receive the Baruchiversary email at the beginning of the month of their previous year’s gift; if they don’t renew immediately, the postcard is mailed during the second week of the month. Emails are sent from the “Baruch College Fund” addressed to individual donors by name with the subject line that read “Happy Baruchiversary.” A link to a special giving form is included so that donors can renew their support and gifts generated through the campaign can be tracked. The postcards – 5,000 each year, mailed in-house to keep campaign costs low – are addressed to each donor and include “Happy Baruchiversary, You” on the front and a simple appeal on the back that reads, “We hope you will commemorate this anniversary by renewing your gift.”

According to Sidney Ko, Baruch’s Deputy Director of Special Gifts, the response from donors has been overwhelmingly positive. The open rate for Baruchiversary emails averages over 30 percent, compared to open rates for regular Baruch e-appeals averaging in the 10-15 percent range. While December sees the largest number of Baruchiversary communications, the overall annual fund appeal cycle continues to run without interruption – so donors still receive other appeals throughout the year – and the team has not received any complaints from donors about the additional communication.

And not only are donors renewing, they are also engaging in dialogue around the unique name – asking how the team came up with the idea and the proper pronunciation of the word – which serves as a talking point for staff while securing the renewed gift. With such a strong response to the Baruchiversary campaign, the team is implementing a similar “We Missed You” postcard strategy targeting multi-year lapsed donors during the month of their last gift.

Fundraising is all about building relationships, and one of the best ways to strengthen those relationships is to celebrate them. Cheerily reminding donors about a significant date in their relationship with your institution – their donation anniversary – can provide just the feeling of connection they need to strengthen this bond and inspire another round of support.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Donor Retention in the Modern Age.

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